For survivors of child abuse, "Avengers" character Nebula can be a true hero

Christopher Harris

These days, people talk a lot about representation in the media. For many, that was the draw of the last superhero blockbuster, Captain Marvel -- seeing a woman headline her own movie within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Of course, Wonder Woman from DC fit that bill too, but within the tightly-woven series of films that has brought us from 2008's "Iron Man" to this week's release of "Avengers: Endgame," Captain Marvel was the first female to fly solo.

On the other hand, the character Nebula is less well-known. A supporting player in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" sub-franchise within the MCU, Nebula is a bit harder to identify with -- she's an alien with blue skin, a bald head, and cybernetic body parts, and she started off as a psychotic villainess.

But there absolutely is a group of regular human beings out there who can look at Nebula on the big screen and see themselves in her -- and see that things will be all right.

That would be survivors of child abuse.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and certain entities of Pulaski County have reminded us of that fact throughout the month. The occasion is associated with the color blue; in early April, the Somerset Junior Woman's Club planted a thousand blue pinwheels at the library's Children's Garden to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect, and Mindsight Behavioral Group did similarly outside their offices along Monticello Street, both events covered by the Commonwealth Journal.

It's ironic, then, that Nebula herself is blue -- because she may be the most high-profile victim of child abuse in the movies today.

While the movie version of Nebula draws inspiration from her original comic book counterpart, their portrayals differ in various ways. But in both media, Nebula suffers at the hands of the arch-villain Thanos. In the source material, Thanos was known as her grandfather, but in the movies, seen by a much more vast and diverse audience than comic Nebula ever was, she is Thanos' adopted daughter.

(Fair warning: I'm about to rain nerdiness all over you in explaining this, but it's important to know the character's story to get the point I'm making here.)

Played by the immensely talented Karen Gillan, best known as Amy Pond from "Doctor Who," the cinematic version of Nebula is one of several "children of Thanos" whom the mad Titan has taken in, presumably after destroying their native population. Nebula's "sister" Gamora, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, was another. Thanos is an environmentalist fanatic of sorts, who believes that life consumes more resources than are available -- and that the only way to save the populations of various worlds from themselves is to murder half of them. Sustainability through genocide. The plot of "Avengers: Infinity War" revolved around Thanos trying to get the mystical tools he needed to accomplish this task -- wiping out half of all life in the universe -- with just a snap of his fingers. Anyone who saw the movie knows how that turned out.

Thanos values strength more than anything else -- strength of will, strength of character (in his own warped way), and strength of capability. Thus, he would pit Nebula and Gamora against each other when they were growing up, and make them fight one another to test who was strongest. Nebula's heart was never in this. As she told Gamora in the second "Guardians" film, all she ever wanted was a sister. Someone to have fun with. Someone to confide in. But Thanos wouldn't let that happen.

Thus, Gamora won her bouts with Nebula, again and again and again. Thanos responded not by showing love to Nebula, but by inflicting his own cruel philosophy upon her. He took her apart, and replaced her own body parts with prosthetics designed to make her stronger, smarter, better. But it never worked. Nebula could never quite get the better of Gamora.

Nebula internalized her pain and became bitter, isolated and sadistic. She gained a reputation for being one of the most deadly, unhinged women in the galaxy, feared and reviled by others. But deep down, she was still a hurt, lost little girl, looking for love that her big bad dad never gave her -- and her sister never could.

The second "Guardians of the Galaxy" saw Nebula's character arc evolve. In the first movie, she was just an antagonist; in the sequel, she confronted her sister and, now both out from under the oppressive thumb of Thanos, they were able to actually talk and make up. Nebula even helped save the day. But while the Guardians were a ragtag group of misfits that had formed their own version of an outer space-faring "family," even there Nebula didn't feel comfortable. Rather than stay with the team, as Gamora would have preferred, Nebula instead went out in search of Thanos to kill him. As we saw in "Infinity War," Thanos captured her instead and put her through agonizing rounds of torture in order to guilt Gamora into giving him key information.

Dad of the Year Award material, huh?

So with "Endgame," which promises to be one of the biggest movies of all time, already shattering records for pre-sales, where does Nebula stand? Last we saw her, she and Robert Downey Jr.'s genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), had lost their battle with Thanos, lost their fellow superheroes, and were stuck alone on a distant planet, far from home. That is, Stark's home on earth; poor Nebula has never really had one.

Gillan teased in pre-release interviews that Nebula would make a new "BFF" and based on the "Endgame" trailers, Stark seems to be the one. But more than that, the ads for the movie -- which comes out this Thursday -- show Nebula not just with Stark but with the whole Avengers team as they march off to battle.

And knowing who the character is and where she's come from, that just warms my heart.

Here's this damaged soul, who has never really known love or acceptance from anyone. And now she's among this group of people known as "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" -- who demonstrate their heroism in this case not by stopping a super-villain or rescuing a civilian from a burning building, but by welcoming Nebula into their fold. By showing her respect, that love and acceptance. By treating her in a way she's never been treated before.

Now, that's the model of a hero.

We don't yet know if Nebula will play a key role in bringing down Thanos -- she did in the original "Infinity Gauntlet" books in the early '90s -- but she certainly deserves to be the one to deliver the decisive blow. This is her personal battle, more so than for anyone else on the Avengers, and it would be fitting if Nebula is able to find some kind of closure by bringing down her abusive father and making him pay for his misdeeds.

But Nebula can be a hero simply by being on the big screen and providing hope and inspiration to anyone who's gone through the real-life nightmare of child abuse. Kids who have been mistreated can look at Nebula and see someone just like themselves, who went through things that she never should have had to endure, who only wanted to be a normal girl with a dad and a sister, like anyone else.

And kids can see that, although Nebula has had her ups and downs, ultimately she's become a hero, someone fighting for the forces of good -- and fighting alongside the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. No matter what anyone tells them, young people going through bad things can see that they aren't worthless or weak -- they are full of potential. They are strong. They have a purpose.

Nebula isn't the character from "Endgame" who will get the most attention, but for the most vulnerable in our society, she can be the most important superhero in the film. She is one of them. She is a survivor of child abuse.

And now, she is an Avenger.

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS writes for the Commonwealth Journal. You can reach him at charris@somerset-kentucky.com.